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Northern Lights Safari 101: Swap The Plains Of Africa For The Arctic Wilderness

by Hannah Natalello

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The Arctic Circle is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after holiday destinations on Earth and with good reason.

Nowhere on the planet mesmerizes us quite like the polar North with wild, wonderful landscapes and rich flora and fauna - all cloaked beneath the mysterious veil of the Aurora Borealis.

Sweden and the Northern reaches of Lapland offer some of the best Arctic wildlife safaris you can hope to experience. The area is home to so many of the region’s most iconic Arctic species including moose, eagles, wolves, beavers, bears, Arctic fox, Eurasian lynx, and wild boar; you will also be able to experience truly breathtaking mountain scenery, and low light pollution levels promise dramatically dark night skies which are perfect for Aurora hunting.

The sun barely peeks over the horizon in the depths of winter; between November and February the area is bathed in twilight and transformed into a dreamlike landscape for around four hours at midday, followed by 20 hours of almost total darkness. This can be a little disorienting, but you quickly get used to it and can really start to appreciate the dramatic beauty and unique culture of the region. One thing that I learned the hard way is that certain animals (looking at you, moose and Arctic fox!) can make some truly creepy sounds, especially at night - I’m not ashamed to say they did catch me out at first!

Just to the north, you can find the world-famous Norwegian fjords which offer superb whale watching. Depending on the time of year that you visit, you can expect to see orca, minke, pilot, humpback, beluga and sperm whales, with your best chances to spot many of these being in winter. The area is also home to a number of charismatic seal species that play and hunt in the chilly waters along the coast.

A trip into the Arctic Circle presents a new and exciting frontier; a safari destination like no other. With so much to see and do all year round, you will want to visit again and again.

Packing For Your First Arctic Winter Safari

Knowing what to pack for a trip into the Arctic Circle can be a little tricky, and getting it right often comes down to experience. But - I hear you cry - how can I have experience if I’ve never done it before? Easy! We’ve put together some of our best advice on packing for your Arctic Circle adventures to help you get it right the first time.

Whether you’re planning a week of sightseeing in the Arctic Circle’s contemporary city destinations, or are heading off into the wilderness for dog sledding, trekking, or ice fishing, our packing guide will not leave you out in the cold.

Prepare for the season

Temperatures can plummet below -45℃ in the winter, which is more than just a little chilly, and summertime highs can reach the 20℃ mark in some areas. You also need to bear in mind that day length varies over the year, much more than in lower latitudes - some areas enjoy the 24-hour sun in summer, but only see fleeting daylight in winter.

In Arctic Sweden, Finland and Norway you can expect to encounter a huge range of temperatures over a 12 month period, so it’s important to plan for the season. We’ll be focussing on what you’ll need for a safe and comfortable winter visit during the months of November-February.

Packing your bag

Unless you’re a bit of a masochist, there are two things you will want to be while traveling in the Arctic Circle:

  1. Warm
  2. Dry

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, you’re mostly right. With careful planning and some common sense, your first trip into the Arctic Circle will be a comfortable and memorable experience.

The tried and tested method of staying warm in the Arctic Circle is layering. Layers upon layers of snuggly goodness will trap air close to your body, keeping the heat in and the cold out, allowing you to remove or add layers to make sure you stay comfortable. Building your layered Arctic winter outfit involves some trial and error to find what works best for you, but you should aim for:

  • A base layer

A base layer’s mission is to trap a warm layer of air just next to your skin, as well as wicking away any moisture to help keep you dry. Base layers can be as cheap or expensive as you like - Merino wool is the material of choice for many Arctic adventurers, but a basic ski base layer will do the trick in most instances, and some people swear by a silk base layer.

Avoid cotton where possible; it doesn’t wick moisture as well as other materials, it is heavy and slow to dry once it’s wet. You will probably want to pack a fresh base layer for each day of your trip as it’s worn next to the skin.

  • A mid layer

A quality mid-layer helps trap even more heat and wicks moisture further from the skin than the base layer. Look for fleeces, softshells, and insulated jackets. Depending on the forecast, you may want to double or even triple up on your mid layer.

Bear in mind though that each layer adds bulk which may eventually start affecting your movements. I’d recommend choosing micro fleeces, wool jumpers, and lightly padded down jackets to keep the bulk to a minimum.

  • An outer layer

Whether you are hunting the Northern lights in Sweden or are experiencing a taste of Sami life, a good quality outer layer will be a welcome addition to your Arctic wardrobe. It should be the thickest layer, and needs to possess the three Ws of Arctic winter travel:

Warmth - Keeping warm is key to a safe and comfortable trip.

Waterproof - Being wet saps the heat from your body, especially when temperatures dip below freezing.

Windproof - Windchill is a big deal. Windchill will always make you feel colder than the ambient temperature, and in the Arctic Circle, this can mean that a -5℃ day can feel more like -50℃.

Insulated, waterproof jackets with hoods come highly recommended, as do ski salopettes and other waterproof, insulated trousers. Look out for materials like Gore-Tex when choosing your outer layer.

What else? 

The above list covers (literally) your torso and legs, but what about your head, hands, and feet? Never fear, they get to be warm too.

Invest in a quality woolen hat or earmuffs and scarf; you can also get fleece lined hats and scarves which pack even more heat. If you prefer, balaclavas can be an effective all-in-one solution.

To keep hands cozy, mittens are more effective than gloves as you can keep your fingers together, trapping more warm air. If you tend to feel the cold in your hands, apply the layering technique and start with a thin set of mittens followed by a thicker, waterproof outer layer.

Footwear follows a similar structure to your layered outfit; we always recommend multiple layers of thin Merino wool socks over one thick layer; this traps warm air more effectively than a single thick layer, and is much better for your circulation. Finish off with a pair of waterproof boots with a rugged rubber sole - snow boots and hiking boots are good options to try. Bear in mind it may be worth trying a size up from your usual shoe size to leave room for your layered socks.

The checklist

To help plan your trip, we’ve put together a list of Arctic travel essentials for you to build on, based on a seven-day trip:

  1. Base layer tops x 7
  2. Base layer bottoms x 7
  3. Underwear x 7
  4. Multiple mid layer options (tops and bottoms) depending on the forecast
  5. Outer layer x 1
  6. Merino socks x 14 pairs plus spares
  7. Snow/hiking boots x 1
  8. Hat / earmuffs x 2
  9. Scarf x 2
  10. Mittens x 2 / 3

It’s tempting to shop around online for the cheapest deals - this is fine, however, we recommend trying on your Arctic clothing before committing to it completely. The last thing you want is a pair of boots that rub, or for something to be too tight and restrictive. Once you have gotten the basics, think about any extra equipment to help you get the most out of your trip:

  • Head torch and spare batteries
  • Ice grips
  • Cameras and spare batteries
  • Ski goggles
  • Skin protection such as lip balms and oil-based moisturizers
  • Reusable hand/foot warmers
  • Warm, comfy clothing and shoes for relaxing indoors
  • Foldable trekking poles
  • Binoculars

Hopefully, you now have a good idea of the things you’ll be packing and taking North with you, but don’t worry too much. Unless you’re heading into the heart of the wilderness, you’ll be able to pick up anything you’re missing in town on arrival. Most tour operators will lend you any special equipment you might need, so check in advance - you could save yourself time and money by borrowing theirs.

We’re all going on a winter holiday!

We’ve been enjoying the sights, sounds, and cultures of the Arctic Circle for years - once you visit, you’ll see why we return year after year to experience this truly special part of the world, steeped in folklore and mystery. Have fun out there.

What are you waiting for? Strap on your adventure boots, layer up and go on a wildlife safari in Finland! You won't regret it!

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